It is interesting to note, as an IT journalist, that when Intel hosts a press conference to announce a new CPU architecture it is always well attended.
The launch of the Pentium II was no exception.
What was different about the latest launch was the strategic message that accompanied it. Normally Intel would introduce its new chip as a revolutionary upgrade - now we have four "flavours" of chips that are complementary in nature.
In order of grunt, they are: Pentium; Pentium with MMX Technology; Pentium Pro; and now, Pentium II.
According to Intel Australia's general manager, David Bolt, the best way to view the four chips is as two streams - MMX and non-MMX. MMX technology enables the CPUs to perform various calculation processes at significantly higher speeds, which is especially useful for multimedia and advanced computational applications.
Chips two and four are MMX chips, chips one and three aren't, with Bolt placing MMX as the strategic direction.
The "classic" Pentium is most likely to be phased out towards the end of the year. Where the Pentium Pro will hold its own is in the server marketplace. Its four-way scalability beats the Pentium II's two-way capability, although Intel is expected to address this with a new chip later this year.
However, Pentium II also has more out-and-out grunt than the Pentium Pro, and is better suited to dealing with legacy 16-bit code.
Confused? According to Bolt, you shouldn't be. "If you're looking for a very good entry price and performance Pentium, this is it. If you're looking for that multimedia-rich application support, Pentium with MMX technology is going to be it. If you're looking for 32-bit performance, or the ultimate in performance in desktop, Pentium II will be it; and in the server, Pentium Pro. Pentium II is over all of those areas, but at a price point - it depends on what you want to pay."
Yaron Schwalb, technical director at Ipex ITG, says his company will continue to position the Pentium Pro as its server offering of choice, with the Pentium II only appearing in entry-level file servers.
Bolt says the Pentium II will eventually become the premier server platform, but in the interim Intel is also looking to take a swipe at the high-end workstation market, against the DEC Alpha and Silicon Graphics-type devices. The weapon: Intel's 300MHz Pentium IIBolt believes this part of the marketplace has been held over a barrel due to the high price of low volume RISC architecture-based CPUs they use. "What Pentium II does is bring that level of performance down into the desktop range at a volume price point. We have particularly singled workstation users out as saying they're going to benefit. As applications get ported to Windows NT, they'll be able to buy a volume architecture product with high-performance levels that they need."
IBM agrees, and has just launched its IntelliStation Pentium II and Pentium Pro-based workstations to tackle this sector of the market [see story page 10].
While the low-end Unix workstation market is potentially a lucrative one for the Pentium II, Bolt says it isn't the only one. "We see very squarely Pentium II going into the business corporate space, and even early adopters in the consumer market will be taking it on."
Schwalb agrees. He sees many of Ipex' clients commencing product evaluations based on the Pentium II. "The Pentium II, having a whole new bus architecture, and MMX combined, is a more attractive proposition."
As for the early adopters in the consumer market, Fairstar Computer general manager Wally Muhieddine says his company has just launched its first Pentium II unit. "We're coming in with a price point of $4000, so we're going for the SOHO and professional user. We're not really targeting mums and dads, even though at that price point they could easily buy it."
While Bolt sees markets currently existing for all four chips, consolidation of the product line is the name of the game.
With this in mind Bolt believes by early to mid next year Intel will move its entire standard Pentium range over to Pentium with MMX Technology.
"The exact timing depends on the demand - there's no point moving the technology ahead if people are still buying the stuff and there's good business there," said Bolt.
"We've got to make sure we can hit as many of the demand points as possible, and it's within capacity.
"So we really want to move to MMX technology across all of our product lines as quickly as practical."
Over time this will also mean moving the Pentium Pro architecture over to Pentium II, but he adds:
"Some people are committed to lines part- icularly around the server architecture with Pentium Pro, and we consider that is the best product for scaling in the server area at this current time."
Bolt says Intel is committed to keeping its OEMs informed, and provides a detailed confidential roadmap.
"That's a very clear, quarter-by-quarter product plan. It's quite detailed, and it has a number of different segments based on price, and what processors fit at what price in those segments. And as you move the dates along, you see when we will change that pricing, and introduce that new technology and drop the other technology into that segment.
"At the end of the day most of them tend to try and follow that roadmap fairly closely - it just makes sense."